Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, and his wife Carol Chiang, arrive on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, for his arraignment at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles. Baca’s trial began Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (File photo by John McCoy/Los Angeles Daily News)

By Susan Abram, Los Angeles Daily News
Posted: 12/07/16 – 12:22 PM PST | U

Former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was “the heartbeat of conspiracy” when it came to hiding abuses within Men’s Central Jail, and he did nothing to hold deputies who beat inmates accountable, prosecutors said in federal court Wednesday.

The remarks were part of opening statements during the first day of Baca’s jail corruption trial, held at the downtown L.A. federal courthouse. In a 40-minute presentation, federal prosecutor Brandon Fox outlined for the jury how Baca and other top brass at the Sheriff’s Department allegedly worked to quash an FBI investigation into jail abuses in August and September of 2011. They moved an inmate around, changed his name, and threatened other inmates with retribution if they spoke to outsiders about what happened inside the jails, he said.

Baca, said Fox, was entrusted by the public to defend them, but when it came down to his department, his deputies, his jails, Fox added, “Mr. Baca abused that power.”

Fox further suggested to the six men and six women on the jury that like police who keep the public away from a crime scene, Baca, too, pushed away the spotlight on jail abuse.

“Nothing to see here,” Fox repeated again and again of how Baca reacted to abuses.

But Baca’s defense attorney, Nathan Hochman, disagreed with that assessment in his opening statement, saying instead that FBI investigators looking into abuse had endangered inmates’ safety and that the former sheriff tried to protect inmates. Baca’s mission was: “Defend the rights of all, including the incarcerated.”

Hochman went on to say that former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka — Baca’s second-in-command — had his own agenda, orchestrated the corruption and did not tell his boss what was happening. Tanaka is serving five years in federal prison on corruption charges.

“The evidence will show the FBI stonewalled Sheriff Baca,” Hochman said. “The evidence will show the sheriff was not afraid of having anyone looking into the jails.”

Baca, now 74, oversaw the largest jail system in the country before he retired in 2014. There were 18,000 inmates at that time.

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